Rosa Dolores Alverío was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico. The town was noteworthy because it had the hospital. Now, it’s noteworthy for being the birthplace of Rita Moreno—the stage name Alverío acquired from her stepfather and the studio heads at MGM when she was signed as the “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor” in 1950.
It’s been 70 years, and Moreno is a star of the stage, the screen, and the stream. Later this December, she will celebrate her 90th birthday as one of the reigning pioneers of showbiz. It’s been a wild ride of ups and downs, Moreno recounts, “And right now it’s up.”
In the hands of any other documentarian, Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It would focus on her success, the award-winning performances that netted her an Oscar, a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy (as well as a Golden Globe, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of the Arts, a Peabody, and dozens more too numerous to count here), her relationship with Marlon Brando at the height of his popularity, her barrier-breaking work, and leave it at that. That documentary would send you off into the world with a feeling of positivity and the unshakable belief that all obstacles can be overcome with hard work. That’s partly true, and Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is interested in all of those things. But director Mariem Pérez Riera also wants to know how high Moreno could have climbed if those same obstacles didn’t exist in the first place. What would Moreno’s career look like if she wasn’t condemned to slather on brown makeup, employ a “universal ethnic accent,” and look sultry for the camera? If she wasn’t sexually harassed by studio bosses and raped by her agent? If a tumultuous affair with Brando didn’t leave her broken and depressed? Why couldn’t she have just been Moreno all along—rather than the caricatures studio bosses and audiences thought she should be with a look like that and a voice like hers?
At its core, Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It is a memoir, one where Moreno explains to us how she became the person she’s always wanted to be—and all the contradictions that entail. It ends with Moreno encountering a piece of street art, a massive graffiti stencil of Moreno as Anita in West Side Story. Moreno is overjoyed and hugs the image. Somewhere Sammy Davis Jr. is singing, “I Gotta Be Me.”
Filmed around the star’s 87th birthday, Riera frames Moreno’s recollections via Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018. Moreno sympathizes with Ford, launching into stories about her early days in show business where she floundered in a series of roles that did nothing to advance her career beyond being a sexual object. Moreno recounts: She could have turned the roles down, but for what? Work was scarce, and she had to take what came her way. So, as George Chakiris recalls, she continued playing parts where the requisite dialogue consisted of “Why you like white girls?” and “Why you taking gold from my people?”
Chakiris, who starred opposite Moreno in West Side Story, is one of a dozen or so interviewed in the doc. Electric Company costar Morgan Freeman brings his folksy wisdom, while Whoppi Goldberg brings the heat. But the majority of the interviews are those who followed in Moreno’s shoes, figures like Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Their interest is seeing how Moreno went from the sexpot on the side to the woman having fun center stage.
Moreno is interested in that, too. She seems just as surprised as anyone that she made it as far as she has. Not to mention, she’s finally found the answer to a question she’s been asking all along. That’s more than half the fun of Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It. With company this good, the story’s rarely boring.
Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It (2021)
Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera
Produced by Brent Miller, Mariem Pérez Riera
Starring: Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg, Eva Longoria, Hector Elizondo, George Chakiris, Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear
Roadside Attractions, Rated PG-13, Running time 90 minutes, Opens June 18, 2021